So much for some stone cold locks

In an awards season that was shaping up to be relatively drama free, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had the audience of press and publicists gasping in shock after the 2009 Academy Award nominees were announced early Thursday morning.  Obviously, the biggest snub went to “The Dark Knight” which proved getting recognition from each and every guild in town increasingly doesn’t mean much.  Still, Christopher Nolan and company weren’t the only ones scratching their heads.  Here's more on that controversy and other big stories from today’s nominee announcement.

Harvey Weinstein ain’t dead yet

It wasn’t just that the Weinstein Company pulled “The Reader” from afterthought to a prizefighter knocking out “The Dark Knight” for the final five, Harvey and gang (what he has left of one anyway) secured nods for Stephen Daldry in directing and David Hare in the very competitive adapted screenplay categories.  As expected, the studio also sheperded a nod for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona's" Penelope Cruz in the best supporting actress race. Considering the rumors surrounding the finances of the company, this might amount to the Weinstein’s last Oscar hurrah (at least in this incarnation). 

Winslet goes solo
Previously nominated five times, both Paramount Vantage, the Weinstein Company and Winslet’s reps fashioned a strategy where they would sell Winslet as a best actress candidate for “Revolutionary Road” (directed by her husband Sam Mendes) and a best supporting candidate for her work in “The Reader.” While many awards groups including the Golden Globes acclimated to their wishes, the Academy decided to go their own way nominating Winslet only for her superior performance (in this writer’s opinion) in “The Reader.”  Now, Winslet the Oscar bridesmaid is trying to win her first nod opposite the legendary Meryl Streep who secured her 15th nomination for “Doubt.”  Our money is still on Winslet, but with Streep in the mix anything is possible.

Screeners rule

Not only did it help “The Reader” with all its nods, but “Frozen River” and “The Visitor.”  “River,” one of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival’s less buzzed about films, got some nice reviews during its summer release, but Sony Pictures Classics made sure it was one of the first guild and Academy screeners mailed resulting in somewhat surprising nominations in the best actress category for Melissa Leo and best original screenplay for first time writer/director Courtney Hunt.  Overture also scored with best actor nominee Richard Jenkins and a nod for original screenplay for Thomas McCarthy thanks to a strong screener campaign.

Why the “Dark Knight” snub?  They’re old stupid
There has been a lot of talk over the past years about how the Academy is starting to age down and that a younger perspective has influenced the selection of such non-traditional nominees as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno” and “Lost in Translation.” It appears that trend has been greatly exaggerated.  “The Dark Knight” was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year appearing on numerous top ten lists, the second highest grossing picture in U.S. history and was nominated by almost every major industry guild for year end awards.  And still, it appears a majority of the Academy couldn’t see past is superhero origins to nominate it for the final five.  Remember, every member of the Academy submits five nominees for best picture.  There is certainly a younger contingent in the Academy, but they appear only strong enough to safely push one non-typical nominee in a year.  This year, one would have to guess a majority of their votes went for “Slumdog Millionaire” and, possibly, “Milk.”  “Knight” couldn’t make up the ground it needed with the older members who favored more traditional Oscar bait such as “The Reader” and “Frost/Nixon.” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was like a consensus pick among all voters.  This might also explain why “The Wrestler,” a major favorite among Hollywood’s younger set, didn’t score original screenplay, cinematography or directing nods.  Most importantly, this is another shot across the bow to AMPAS that if it wants the Oscars to stay relevant in movie history, it needs to open its doors to many more under 40 members working in the industry.  Yeah, good luck with that one.

Springsteen will just enjoy the Super Bowl this year
While many in the media and the music industry might be perplexed about a perceived diss against the 1994 best original song winner for “Philadelphia” by not nominating his title song for Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” its much more complicated than that.  The music branch of the Academy wants to be taken more seriously as being part of the moviemaking process and there recent rule changes over the past few years have made end credit songs difficult to champion.  It’s one of the reasons Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” song also wasn’t nominated (not that they respect the icon’s composing skills).  “Down to Earth” no doubt made the cut because it’s heard within the context of the movie.  One thing is clear the branch may have gone too far in its rule changes. Excellent songs that become ingrained in pop culture are being eliminated overly strict requirements.  When the Grammys are more accurately awarding in this category you’ve got a problem.

Are there any competitive races this year?

There is a growing sense that the closest thing to a race this year is in the best actor category.  Sean Penn is still the frontrunner for his work in “Milk,” but  “The Wrestler’s” Mickey Rourke is coming on strong.  If Rourke wins the equivalent statue at the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards on Sunday night, watch out. 

“Slumdog” has to watch out for another underdog
The much beloved “Slumdog Millionaire” is still the favorite to win best picture, but even with 10 nominations (and trust me, double digits means a lot when it comes down to the finish line) the Fox Searchlight surprise needs to watch its rearview mirror for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The David Fincher drama scored 13 nods, one short of the record 14 only “All About Eve” and “Titanic” have secured.  Wit that much love from individual branches, the yawn inducing, but pretty “Button” could easily take home the top award of the night.

Irony in Eastwood snub
Billed as Clint Eastwood’s last performance on the big screen, the Academy favorite was thought to be a shoe-in for a best actor nomination. No one would have been surprised if the crowd-pleasing “Torino” had received a best picture or best original screenplay nomination either.  Instead, the icon was completely shut out of this years show, having to be satisfied with a best actress nominee for the star of his drama “Changeling,” Angelina Jolie.  Amazingly, “Torino” is a huge hit that should gross well past the $100 million mark.  Would opening the movie nationally a week earlier helped its Oscar chances?  Warner Bros. and Eastwood will no doubt be second-guessing that decision while taking the inexpensive film’s receipts all the way to the bank.

Where was the Woody love?
Eastwood wasn’t the only Academy favorite to be forgotten this year.  Woody Allen made his best film in a decade, the critical and box office hit “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but the legendary writer/director couldn’t snag a nomination in a weak best original screenplay field (very odd).  Allen will just have to root for one of the film’s stars, Penelope Cruz, to take home her first Oscar in the best supporting actress category.

What surprised you most about this year’s nominations? Are you looking forward to the show?  Hit me back with your thoughts below.